The National Resistance Movement App and Digital Politics in Uganda

Screenshots from the Ugandan National Resistance Movement’s iOS app, explored in the text below, with added distortion. Source
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni participating in the #Jerusalemachallenge with this animation, a lighthearted social media clip that generated buzz among young voters. Many claim, however, that posts like this one reflect Museveni’s disregard for the political struggles in the East African country. Source

Over the years, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party has used the new tools afforded by the internet to maintain its political power.

Since its independence from British colonial rule in 1962, Uganda has never had a peaceful transfer of power. In the 1970s and 1980s, Museveni led uprisings against dictators before assuming office in 1986. Since that time, Uganda has amended its Constitution twice to allow Museveni to remain in power as he aged. Today, thirty-five years later, he’s one of the world’s longest-running heads of state. With two-thirds of Ugandan voters under the age of thirty and nearly 80% under thirty-five, an entire generation of young Ugandans has lived with Museveni in power, and winning their support — even through frivolous videos — is crucial for anyone seeking office.

With an increasingly connected electorate at home, Museveni gained the means by which to monitor and reach voters.

Before the February 2011 presidential election, Ugandan voters received pre-recorded robo-calls from the Museveni campaign reminding them to vote for him. Days before the election, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) furnished SMS providers with a list of keywords and phrases believed to instigate unrest. Texts containing these terms were to be blocked, which the UCC justified under election integrity. Two months after the election, opposition presidential candidates who lost to Museveni spearheaded the ‘Walk to Work’ protest to call attention to the escalating cost of living resulting from inflation and fuel costs that had risen 50% in four months. At the height of the protest, the UCC shut down access to social media across the country for 24 hours, undermining the demonstration’s mobilization efforts.

The Ugandan Communications Commission censored SMSs containing these terms pictured above in the days preceding the 2011 federal elections, contending that they posed a threat to election security. The banned terms — which span English and Nyole, a language native to eastern Uganda — include “people power”, “teargas”, “police”, and “emundu” (gun).
A screenshot of an unsolicited message from President Museveni to a voter in the days before the 2016 election. Source: The Observer
A screenshot from a video Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni uploaded to YouTube reveals his party’s ambitions for e-services across the country. The video also stated that “Over 106 e-services can be accessed through the e-services portal.” Source: YouTube
A screenshot of Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement’s iOS app from Apple’s App Store highlights a “Zero Tolerance To Corruption” achievement. In 2020, NGO Transparency International ranked Uganda 142nd out of 180 on perceptions of public sector corruption with score of 27/100.
Sources: iOS App Store, Transparency International

“I am not surprised by the results because the NRM is widely known as a digital authoritarian government that would rather compromise the security of its supporters at the expense of retaining the presidency.”

In attempt to fix the issues we identified, we emailed the app’s developers repeatedly over the course of months, but we received no response. In the aftermath of a recent global Facebook incident in which the names, emails, and other identifiers of 533 million users was compromised, one expert asserted that the same barriers that prevent users elsewhere valuing their personal data also exist in Uganda. Unless people understand the financial value of their data, they suggested, users will continue to undervalue their personal data. And helping people appreciate how much their personal data is worth requires continued investments in digital literacy.

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Tactical Tech

Tactical Tech

Tactical Tech is an international NGO that engages with citizens and civil-society organisations to explore and mitigate the impacts of technology on society.